Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Warner Brothers TV was certainly on a roll in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and among their many successful projects were four shows pretty much cut from the same cloth: 77 SUNSET STRIP, HAWAIIAN EYE, BOURBON STREET BEAT, and SURFSIDE SIX (EDITOR'S NOTE...actually FIVE if you count THE ROARING TWENTIES). Basically, you had a detective agency in an exotic locale (LA’s Sunset Strip, Hawaii, New Orleans, and Miami Beach). There were two or three hunky male leads, a female character involved with the agency for them to bounce dialogue off of, and a local character for comedy relief and/or musical asides--in 77 SUNSET STRIP, it was Edd “Kookie” Byrnes; in HAWAIIAN EYE it’s Poncie Ponce; in BOURBON STREET BEAT it was Nat King Cole’s brother Eddie as jazz pianist “The Baron”; in SURFSIDE SIX it was Margarita Sierra as Cha Cha O’Brien (!!!!). Though they had a lot of exotic local color and location shooting, the shows were made on the WB lot and made extensive use of rear-screen projection. WB was a class act and had the best technicians in the business, so unless you are specifically looking for the projection-screen fakery, you would not notice it.

These shows were incredibly popular in their day and can still be seen in re-runs today here and there (77 SUNSET STRIP was playing on ME-TV a few months ago, when I was down with the flu and looking for mindless vintage TV to watch while out of it), and they are slickly made and have fast-moving plots (the detective agency base means you can insert almost any content into a show and justify it—they take all kinds of cases). Also, WB got the best guest stars, generally people who were known for film work, so when you figure that each episode of these shows is kind of like a B-movie in itself, each show has charismatic leads, the guest stars are movie-quality actors/actresses, and the whole thing is fresh off the best assembly-line in entertainment (the WB logo is all over the shows….and the narration at the beginning), it’s the crime TV equivalent of getting a top-of-the-line Buick right off the assembly line in Detroit! The shows also all had catchy hook-filled theme songs which you’ll have in your head for days (and you’ll be trying to get them OUT of your head).

I recently got the complete run of the first two seasons of HAWAIIAN EYE from a grey-market dealer (and he now has the final two seasons available too, so I may take the plunge on that). The core group in the first two seasons consisted of Anthony Eisley and Robert Conrad as the two lead detectives (and while each would be in every show, one or the other would usually be highlighted), Connie Stevens as “Cricket” their assistant and lounge singer at the hotel where they work out of, and Poncie Ponce as the ukulele-playing stringer for the agency who provides comic and musical interludes a few times a show. Grant Williams joined mid-way in the second year, and Anthony Eisley left after the third season. During the fourth and final season the great Troy Donahue (previously on SURFSIDE SIX) joined to kind of replace Eisley, but he played the entertainment director at the hotel, not a detective.

I watched the first two episodes of Season Two for this review (as I did with THE DETECTIVES, with Robert Taylor, a while back here at BTC) although I’ve sampled other episodes and will eventually watch all of them if suddenly there are 29 hours in a day rather than 24.

Star Anthony Eisley (known earlier in his career as Fred Eisley, his real name—see pic of him) is everything the lead on a show like this needed to be: handsome, charismatic, both witty and tough, and a solid actor capable of carrying a show. Eisley is known nowadays more for his horror and exploitation films than for his mainstream product—the man worked for Roger Corman, Al Adamson, Ted V. Mikels, David L. Hewitt, and Fred Olen Ray (and having worked with those five he should get some kind of award), and he also was memorable in Samuel Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS and Elvis Presley’s FRANKIE AND JOHNNY and the wonderful Eurospy romp LIGHTNING BOLT, where he did dub his own voice and provided witty sardonic commentary on the events. He worked extensively in television (multiple appearances on PERRY MASON and DRAGNET 1967 among them) in addition to film, but HAWAIIAN EYE was surely his breakout role and the one remembered most by people who were adults during the 59-62 period when he was on the show.

The first episode I watched, I WED THREE WIVES, features Eisley and is oriented around a smarmy egocentric movie star (brilliantly played by Ray Danton, who was always great at comedy!) who is avoiding alimony and the IRS and his sagging career by hiding out in Hawaii at the hotel where Eisley is the head of security. Danton’s three ex-wives all get wind of his coming to Hawaii, and they get together to head him off there and demand alimony and child support (he’s a deadbeat on those counts, as you’d expect). During the first half of the show, they try to get past security and track him down, and you can imagine the cat-and-mouse game that involves (often played for laughs). When they find him, they kidnap him and take him to a rented house. Danton’s character, being the charmer that he is, manages to melt the objections of each lady—as they watch him overnight in shifts—and win them over. The episode is really a vehicle for Ray Danton—who is always great in anything—who gets to show a wide range of emotions, as well as a wide range of feigned emotions since he’s such a two-faced heel. It’s really a challenge for an actor to pull off, and Danton does it VERY well. While there is a lot of humor on the show, there is real tension and drama and gunplay and the like. Based on this episode, one would have to give the show a very positive rating.

I also watched the second episode, PRINCESS FROM MANHATTAN, which features Robert Conrad, probably younger than most of us will remember seeing him. This is PRE-PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND, which was before THE WILD WILD WEST. Conrad is more subdued than we’re used to seeing—remember his TV commercials for Eveready batteries (see pic of ad) where Conrad dared you to knock the battery off his shoulder? He didn’t yet have that persona to the extent that he developed it later, but what he does have is a smoldering kind of intensity that pulls the viewer in and surely must have been VERY attractive to the female viewers of the day. Conrad was a friend of Nick Adams, who helped him get some of his earlier roles, but HAWAIIAN EYE was his star-making part—and that unique Conrad aura is here even in its earlier muted form (by the way, has anyone seen the three films Conrad made in Mexico in the mid-1960’s?). The plot is centered around some Middle Eastern prince who is married to an American (the “Princess From Manhattan” of the title) who is staying at the hotel and thus is provided security by the Eisley/Conrad agency. Conrad’s character actually knew (and dated) the princess before she was a princess. He initially does not want to be assigned to the case because of that past relationship, and asks Eisley to take it, but when “her royal highness” requests his presence, he has no choice but to obey. You can imagine how this scenario plays out, with Conrad and the prince getting to know each other, and Conrad and his former flame, now princess, getting re-acquainted (and she’s still carrying a torch for him, of course). The man playing the prince looks more like Lloyd Bochner (was Bochner not available?) than any person of Middle Eastern background I’ve ever met, but hey, this was 1960’s television. The princess wants to break up with his royal highness and of course involves Conrad in this.

Oh, did I mention Connie Stevens’ role in these shows? She’s kind of hanging around the office doing work for them, dripping playful charm and sexiness (I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers described her that way in the script!) but also entertains at the hotel nightclub, and in each of the two shows discussed she gets a song. Although the original run of HAWAIIAN EYE was before my time, I did see her in many other things throughout the 60’s and early 70’s, and I must confess to having had a crush on her as a child, a crush I’ve never really lost. To me, she’s always been a class act (and yes, I’ve seen SCORCHY
—twice the first week it was out….see movie poster), and I would always go out of my way to catch a guest shot on MURDER, SHE WROTE or whatever. I even watched her home-shopping pitches for her line of cosmetics (and if I had been a woman, I would have bought them). I’m sorry I never got to see her perform in a nightclub—I’m sure she would have had the audience eating out of her hand. There is more back-and-forth romantic banter between Conrad and Stevens than there is between Eisley and Stevens (Eisley is the older partner, the more grounded and serious one), but WB does a good job in making their contract actress Stevens appealing. She also had a successful side career as a pop vocalist (as did a number of WB stars—see the 45 picture sleeve)—giving her a song on many of the shows probably helped her record sales a lot.

The four WB detective shows mentioned above—all of which ran for multiple seasons—are evidence of what an exciting assembly line of talent and product the studio produced during that period. Executive producer Wm. T. Orr (whose name is always prominent in the end credits) and the anonymous bold narrator at the beginning of the shows who sternly TELLS YOU the show’s name and its stars (since evidently just showing them on the screen is not enough!) created a unique feel so that ten seconds into the show you KNOW it’s WB product. It was truly a Golden Age, and I’d recommend anyone so inclined to catch ANY of the four shows when they are re-run on networks aimed at old people or nostalgia-fans. The world that watched HAWAIIAN EYE and bought Connie Stevens 45’s is a world I’m comfortable living in.

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